Saturday, November 27, 2010

Walters Interview: First Lady Takes On Sarah Palin Criticism of Big Government & Food Policy

First Lady asserts that government has a role to play, but government alone is not enough to end childhood obesity in a generation: "There is no constituency that should be excluded from this call to action for our kids."
During an hour-long Thanksgiving special that aired on Friday night, ABC's Barbara Walters sat down at the White House with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to discuss a wide range of issues. The rare joint interview was shot on Nov. 23, and covered the most current topics in the Obama world, from the midterm election "shellacking" to raising daughters Malia and Sasha in the White House, to the President's 2012 re-election campaign. Walters asked Mrs. Obama to lay out the goals of her Let's Move! campaign, and brought up Sarah Palin as a way to get Mrs. Obama to address the building chorus of conservative critics who cite her childhood obesity campaign as yet another form of intrusive Big Government. (Above: The President and Mrs. Obama with Walters)

Walters directly asked Mrs. Obama if government has a role to play in ending childhood obesity, and Mrs. Obama's answer was yes--but with some caveats. She made it clear that while government has a role, parents and communities--and other constituencies--also must be involved, to achieve her goal of ending childhood obesity in a generation.

"I want to talk to you about one of your own projects, that's very important to you, and that's fighting childhood obesity," Walters said to Mrs. Obama, by way of broaching the topic. "What do you hope to accomplish?"

"Well, our goal is ambitious but simple. I mean, we want to end the epidemic in a generation," Mrs. Obama responded. "We're really aiming at children born today, 'cause our goal is that if we begin shaping habits, and shaping the conversation, and providing information to parents and teachers, and engaging all of our leaders in this conversation, that we'll change the habits of young people today."

Whose business is obesity and food policy?
"Sarah Palin recently brought cookies to a school in Pennsylvania, to show her disapproval of the state's proposal to limit sweets in public schools," Walters said, and then played a video clip of Palin giving a speech at the Plumstead Christian School on November 9th. Palin brought cookies to the event to point out that neither the state nor schools should be regulating childrens' food consumption, but rather that parents should be.

The Palin appearance at Plumstead* has gotten wide attention in the media, although Palin didn't reference the Let's Move! campaign by name, nor did she mention Mrs. Obama. Palin, however, followed up that salvo this week with a direct bash of Mrs. Obama and Let's Move!, during an interview on the Laura Ingraham Radio show. But Walters doesn't mention this. Instead, Walters asked Mrs. Obama to respond to Palin's onscreen Plumstead announcement that food choices for children should be made by parents, not schools, and not government.

"Many conservatives ask, well, you know, whose business is it? Is it the government's business?" Walters said, when the Palin/Plumstead clip ended.

"Yeah," Mrs. Obama said.

"Or the parent's business," Walters interrupted. "So, what do you think should be the role of government in combating obesity?"

"Well we've always said throughout this campaign that this, solving this problem is going to take all of us," Mrs. Obama said. "Parents, families, communities have the largest impact on how kids think about anything, particularly what they eat."

"But ultimately it requires all of us," Mrs. Obama added. "And this campaign is about engaging all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike. I mean, the beauty about this issue is that it transcends politics. Because we all care about our kids."

"But government has a role in the schools?" Walters asked.

"A government has a role to play in this issue, as does every other sector," Mrs. Obama said. "And we reached out and engaged the grocery store manufacturers, and the restaurateurs. We brought in the mayors and governors of states and towns. We're calling on the faith-based community. There is no constituency that should be excluded from this call to action for our kids."

The exchange ended abruptly, as Walters shifted the subject to Mrs. Obama's physique, with no transition.

"Are you sick of people talking about your toned arms?" Walters said as she blithely swapped subjects. "I noticed you're not wearing a sleeveless dress."

The First Lady was clad in a chic dress that had three-quarter length sleeves, appropriate for late Fall in Washington, where temperatures average in the mid-forties to fifties.

On optimism, and not thinking about Sarah Palin: The Right to Bear Full-Fat Cookies is now equivalent to the Right to Bear Arms
Mrs. Obama's comment about childhood obesity being an issue that "transcends politics" may be true at its heart--obesity and overweight cross all class lines, racial lines, and income lines, as well as party lines--but asserting that the issue can have broad bipartisan support because everyone cares about kids is very optimistic in the current political environment.

There are wildly varying opinions on how much government intervention--and federal assets--should be focused on ending childhood obesity and improving food standards, as has been recently made clear by the House hesitation to pass the pending child nutrition legislation, a centerpiece of the Let's Move! campaign. And it was Democrats who were responsible for the stalling of that legislation this September, not Republicans. Everyone may care about kids, but how that care is both enacted and funded--whether by any government intervention, limited government intervention, or no government intervention, will remain a politically volatile topic for a long time to come. The federal government is already in the business of regulating food, and issuing nutrition advisories, but how much further it goes remains to be seen. Obviously.

Mrs. Obama's efforts to get a huge grassroots coalition on board with her campaign is a good way of counterbalancing all the major gaps that do exist in food and nutrition regulation, however. She's called on citizens--and industry--to act voluntarily in their own best interests--and the interests of children--for the sake of health. The Let's Move! campaign is just shy of ten months old as of this writing; Mrs. Obama launched it in February of 2010, and it's built out exponentially. There is an astonishing array of groups now participating in the campaign.

And in fairly short order, the First Lady has put the issue of school foods front and center as a focal point for national attention, and created nationwide interest in community and school gardens. She's caused a rapid paradigm shift in the way food and obesity are discussed in the culture, a truly national conversation, which is also becoming an international conversation. There's no way of un-ringing those bells, at this point. The fact that the campaign is attracting criticism is a good sign. Clearly, the First Lady is being heard. Whether a broad cross segment of the population thoroughly adopts her message, so that childhood obesity can be eliminated within a generation, is another story entirely. On Monday, the campaign builds out again, when Mrs. Obama launches a new Let's Move! initiative for faith and community leaders, "Let's Move Faith & Communities."

President Obama also got tossed a load of Palin, when Walters asked him to comment on Palin's recent assertion to Walters that she could beat him in a race for the presidency.

"I don't think about Sarah Palin," President Obama said, to end Walters' questions on the subject, after refusing to answer Walter's question about whether he could beat Palin if she runs against him.

But Palin will have to be "thought of" by both the President and First Lady, whether she's running for president or criticizing Let's Move!, won't she? Whatever Palin says, whether factually correct or not, gets repeated over and over in the media and across the blogosphere until it stands in for a skewed version of the truth. And she's widely popular. Palin's position on government interventions in food and obesity is also held by many across the conservative spectrum, by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Fox News and many others who have criticized the Let's Move! campaign and the First Lady--and they're messaging it to millions.

Thus the pushback against mismessaging about government interventions in food and obesity policy will have to be steady for the Let's Move! campaign to succeed. Because these days, the right to eat as much food as an individual wants, even if it's loaded with fat, sugar and salt, has become the new American version of the Right to Bear Arms. There's no Constitutional amendment, but the right to make yourself both fat and/or happy is apparently--if you're a conservative--guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence, under the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Palin brought cookies to her Plumstead school speech because she was exercising her rights, and making a sugar-coated gesture about the parental rights of free choice.

There was no mention of the fitness elements of the Let's Move! campaign during the interview, despite Walters' question about Mrs. Obama's arms, nor did Walters point out that the First Lady has been donning workout gear and publicly hula hooping, skipping rope, and doing calisthenics with kids for months in an effort to get them more interested in being physically active, a critical component of Let's Move!. In distinct contrast to how much outcry there has been over Mrs. Obama's food initiatives, the criticism level for the physical fitness part of the campaign has been very, very low. Curiously, neither Mrs. Obama nor Walters actually uttered the name of Mrs. Obama's campaign, "Let's Move!," during the entire exchange. It's an interesting oversight for a campaign that has been well branded. (Logo, above: Each of the different Let's Move! initiatives has its own special campaign logo and name, and at events, Mrs. Obama is usually accompanied by kids wearing logo'd t-shirts. The Let's Move! logo has even been put on media credentials for reporters covering Let's Move! events)

Mrs. Obama, by the way, told Walters she will "never get sick of" people talking about her toned arms.

"If it's a positive compliment, I am a woman, just, like, bring it on," Mrs. Obama said, chuckling. "I'm, I'm cool with it."

Related: More on foodie elements in the Walters interview with the President and First Lady is here.

>The full transcript of A Barbara Walters Special: A Thanksgiving Visit with President and Mrs. Obama, and video clips are here.

*A representative from the Pennsylvania Board of Education announced after Palin's appearance at Plumstead that she had misunderstood its proposed nutrition guidelines, and there was no pending ban on sweets.

*Photo by Pete Souza/White House